Culture Jam is a long-standing tradition at The Ellis School and this year it celebrated a very special anniversary: 20 years of student changemakers making an impact through this student-led and organized diversity conference.
Culture Jam has been organized annually by The Ellis School’s Student Diversity League (SDL) since 2004, and this year’s SDL leaders said they aren’t surprised that Ellis girls have kept the event going for so long; after all, they said, leadership is baked into the Ellis experience.
“I think it’s part of Ellis’ identity to instill advocacy into their students,” said senior and SDL President Nadia Commodore. “We have our integrated studies classes which literally teach us the skills to be able to go out into the world and advocate for those who may not be able to advocate for themselves. I think it’s only natural that we evolve to be leaders in our own right because it’s taught to us from the minute we step through the doors.”
Centered on social justice issues and core cultural identifiers such as race, gender, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status, family structure, and more, Culture Jam gives high school students a unique opportunity to connect with one another and learn how to ignite the sparks of authentic change. This year's theme was Creating Peace from Peril, and it focused on the ability to reimagine hardships as opportunities for growth.
The day included a variety of workshops and small group discussions, all facilitated by students. Junior and Culture Jam committee leader Zoi Sledge said those discussions, especially the ones held in affinity groups, were valuable.
“Having small discussions in affinity groups helps all of us feel stronger and supported in every conversation and discussion we have,” she said. “It’s a chance for us just to be together and talk. There’s good vibes all around.”
The students also selected three Pittsburgh-based activists to speak on a panel during the event: Susan Baida, Executive Director of the Collaboratory Against Hate (CAH), an academic center whose mission is to help understand and mitigate targeted violence stemming from group hate; Leon Ford, a celebrated author, social entrepreneur, and impact investor who co-founded The Hear Foundation with former Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chief Scott Schubert; and Hanifa Nakiryowa, who founded a nonprofit in Uganda to raise voices against human rights violations and abuses and to mobilize resources to support the medical care and rehabilitation of acid attack survivors.
“We really wanted people who were going to embody our theme,” Nadia said. “I think also bringing members of our community together who are involved in DEI work to speak to us students really shows us that it’s possible to take this into the professional field.”
In addition to Ellis’ Upper School students, this year’s event included 115 visiting students from eight regional schools and school districts, including: The Neighborhood Academy; Winchester Thurston School; Central Catholic High School; The Kiski School; Gateway High School; Sewickley Academy; South Fayette School District; and Seneca Valley School District.
This year’s Culture Jam student leaders included SDL Vice President and junior Zaitun Kirabo, Committee Leader and sophomore Khyla Herbert, and Community Education Leader and senior Rebekah Rapp, who served with Nadia and Zoi in the Student Diversity League, planning and leading parts of the event.
Ellis students are already thinking about next year’s Culture Jam. “Events like this get people thinking about how they can make a change," Zoi said, and she’s excited for the conversations and connections next year will bring.
“I think what keeps Culture Jam going is that our community is full of such a wide range of diverse students,” said Denise LaRosa, Ellis’ Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Dr. LaRosa provided guidance and support for the SDL leaders as they planned the event. “When I talk about diversity it’s beyond race and ethnicity. You’ve got those unique lived experiences. You’ve also got students who are bold and very passionate and I think there’s always—unfortunately—something going on in society that can give us pause and force us to reflect on what we can do to cultivate change. It really shows how our mission and our vision, and our core values as a school, lend themselves to engaging in this work in a very authentic way.”